Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Selling the MSBR

Recently on his excellent blog about nuclear goings-on in Oak Ridge, Frank Munger posted a link to "Risky Appropriations: Gambling U.S. Energy Policy on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership," a report critical of GNEP. Written by Friends of the Earth USA, Government Accountability Project, Institute for Policy Studies and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, it argues that
"The administration’s rush to develop and deploy GNEP is unnecessary and imprudent. Instead of committing to a program that may ultimately cost more than $700 billion, the administration should take a more reasoned approach and study whether there are less costly and more proliferation-resistant alternatives than a dramatic expansion of the nuclear industry for achieving the goalsof reducing reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions and finding a viable long-term storage option for the existing stockpiles of spent reactor fuel wastes."
Now, I know that the authors of the report have a well-established bias against nuclear power. I also think that they're throwing the baby out with the bathwater- international cooperation on advanced fuel cycle research is a really good idea and should be encouraged. But they have a real point here, as the current GNEP proposals leave a lot to be desired.

In my view, the Achilles' heel of GNEP in its current form is its dependence on fast-neutron Advanced Burner Reactors (ABRs) to manage spent fuel from the current LWR fuel cycle. Currently, the ABR is conceived of as a sodium-cooled design. The history of sodium-cooled reactors has been disappointing, to say the least. The spectacular neutron economy they can theoretically achieve attracted many adherents. But generations of nuclear engineers have never been able to make these designs safe, reliable, and affordable simultaneously. The Russians have had the most success with the BN-600, but even it has been plagued by problems in its 28 years of operation.

There are also serious problems inherent in the projected GNEP fuel cycle- that it would use UREX+ reprocessing technology. This would require constant transport of fuel assemblies to and from LWRs, ABRs, and reprocessing plants. Honestly, I think that many of the problems faced by GNEP are probably inescapable in a system using solid-fuel reactors.

Fortunately, we have a technological alternative to the flawed vision of the current GNEP proposal. Molten-salt breeder reactors are, in my opinion, the best technology we have for facing the many challenges of the 21st century. Real-world experience with this reactor, while much less extensive than that with LMFBRs, was much more promising. The ability to use extremely common Th-232 as fuel eliminates the problems associated with the inefficiency of the current LWR fuel cycle. MSBRs can be safe, proliferation-resistant, and affordable. They can be built quickly on assembly lines from modular components. Most importantly, the MSBR is probably the only technology with the potential to ameliorate the climate crisis and provide the energy needed for third world economic development at the same time.

Unfortunately, it seems that hardly anyone outside of a relatively limited circle of nuclear enthusiasts knows about the spectacular potential of molten-salt reactors. This has to change, and soon. We need to get the message out- to the government, to the scientific community, and to the people at large.

On the first note, we need to find advocates for the technology in all areas of the government. Obviously, it would be ideal if the next president was an MSBR advocate, but it will be necessary in any case to have support in Congress- particularly in critical committees. Another vital area of support we need is from the leadership of the national laboratories. Infighting between them could cripple a major research program. My hope is that the less-than-optimal program GNEP now represents will be replaced by an aggressive research program into liquid-fuel reactor designs. In particular, the ABTR could be replaced by a prototype MSR along the lines of what Kirk Sorensen has been advocating.

If growing up in Oak Ridge taught me anything, it's that even brilliant scientists who work in a nuclear weapons laboratory aren't necessarily nuclear power experts. Most members of the scientific community know little about the differences between various reactor designs, fuel cycles, and so on. It is very important that figures such as James Hansen, who has stated publicly that "advanced nuclear power" is part of the solution to climate change, understand that the MSBR is the technology best suited to this role. I'm not sure what the best way to go about this is. Perhaps an article in a very prominent journal (the kind that's read outside of a single sub-discipline, like Nature) about the advantages of the MSBR for mitigating climate change? It could propose a concrete scenario for reactor construction and tabulate the overall environmental externalities for such an endeavor. Ideally, it would be as complete as reasonably possible, including cost estimates for all stages of the construction, operation, and decommissioning of the plants.

Finally, ordinary people need to learn about the MSBR. I believe that the popular appeal of the MSBR lies in its superior safety and waste management characteristics, as well as its potential to make the United States less dependent on foreign energy imports. The mind-boggling energy content of the Lehmi Pass thorium deposit could make an instructive talking point.

It would also be a good idea to prepare now for the inevitable criticism of the professional antinuclear crowd. I suspect that once they perceive the MSBR as a threat, they'll latch onto the lengthy and troubled decommissioning of the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment at ORNL as the easiest way to attack the technology. Advocates of molten-salt reactors need to have ready answers to questions about this issue. Perhaps the reactors could be designed to be broken down into modular components and then transported to some kind of dedicated decommissioning facility. I suppose it depends on many factors- decommissioning an MSBR constructed from carbon-carbon composites could be very different from decommissioning the MSRE has been.

In any case, tell your friends about the MSBR!


DV8 2XL said...

MSBRs are the answer, of this there is no question. Getting them type approved and into service is another.

What is needed is a grass-roots campaign to push for it, and right now there is little organization, and few people that could be called pro-nuclear activists to pull something like that off.

One of the things that the other side has always been better at was recruiting troops to serve in the trenches. We have got to rip a page out of their book and do the same.

Left Atomics said...

There are actually some potential good sources for public activity that are developing.

Charles Barton on "Nuclear Green" (nucleargreen.blogspot.com) has be advocating it everyday, it seems. He has an article that should go up today sometime on the widely read "The Oil Drum".

Additionally, many of us are developing the "Thorium Grand Plan" on energyfromthorium.com/portal

With this plan and accompying documentation, we will be able to start winning over people to the MSR design. Of course, there are *many* MSR designs. The one we are most pleased with is the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor.

David Walters

DV8 2XL said...

While I am in no way disparaging the work of Charles and Kirk, the fact remains that we cannot create a groundswell of support by preaching to geeks like ourselves. Certainly a Lefty like yourself understands the power of a mobilized proletariat in moving something like this forward.

The whole sector hasn't wanted to get its hands soiled by the sort of rough-and-tumble politics that the foes of nuclear energy have honed to a science over the years. I'm just saying we have to look to more visceral means of getting the message to the general public.

Sovietologist said...

I agree wholeheartedly that the ongoing efforts of Charles Barton and others are a great start. It'll be interesting to see the response to his Oil Drum post. But this is just the beginning- the real trick will be building the needed government and public support to start the aggressive research program we need. Part of the problem is that to a layman the technology sounds kind of crazy, even though it is arguably much safer than many operating commercial reactors.

While the liquid fluoride thorium reactor is the most promising of the many designs, it would also be a good idea to begin researching chloride reactors as well. Although it will probably take far longer to make these reactors practical, they will ultimately be needed for some tasks that the thermalized reactors can't fulfill.

Left Atomics said...

Of course ideally we need a mass movement to counter the Antis on any of this.

The problem right now is that we need something to offer othe than "MSR". So, if we take the thorium-geeks we got and develop a sort of "Grand Plan" or manifesto, we have something to use and go out and seek the larger, more grass roots groups that might support this. At the same time, yes, we need engineers and politicians to be won over and start be advocates, indeed, start being lobbyists to get the first LFTRs built.


Brian said...

Hmm ... I'm highly skeptical of this fanboy-type of "my reactor is better than your reactor" advocacy, and I seriously doubt that it accomplishes anything at all. In fact, it seems to me to be downright counterproductive.

I don't care exactly what is built, as long as something is built sooner rather than later. The MSR concepts have a long way to go before anything would be realizable commercially. Frankly, having done quite a bit of work looking into the various nuclear reactor designs that are out there, I cannot help feeling that molten salt reactors have been oversold by small group of prolific enthusiasts. I agree that the technology is promising, which is why it was included by the Gen IV International Forum as one of the designs included in its Gen IV Nuclear Energy Systems, which was "estimated to be deployable by 2025." Of course, this was five years ago, and as far as I know, no R&D has been done on this concept, so we had better change that to "deployable by 2030" at the earliest.

Nevertheless, the MSR is not the be all and end all of nuclear technology. Today, it has some quite large technical challenges to overcome before it can be a realistic, economic option. It might get there someday, but in the meantime I would like to suggest to my fellow nuclear advocates to tone down the rhetoric that is critical of what is actually is being done. Anything is better than nothing. I seriously believe that some of this geeky infighting is disrupting and distracting from the more important mission of getting accurate, reliable information out to the public about the benefits of nuclear generation and nuclear technology in general.

Sovietologist said...

What worries me is that the current GNEP proposal is basically betting the farm on sodium-cooled fast reactors. I personally don't believe that these are really any closer to commercial practicality than MSR designs- despite the comparative resources that have been lavished on them in the past fifty years. I can see an argument for turning GNEP into a research program pursuing a variety of reactor designs, but I cannot endorse the current scheme to develop a sodium-cooled ABR prototype in the near term. In practice this would probably deprive other research programs of funding, and very possibly would not result in a working reactor in the end due to either technical or political circumstances. Personally, I'm an MSR fan; I would like to see these reactors get the lion's share of funding instead of the current ABTR proposal. Also, the Russians are going ahead on sodium-cooled reactor research with the BN-800; we'd probably be better off cooperating with them instead of developing a domestic program. I believe that the French and Japanese are doing keen on cooperating with the Russians on this project; we could get in on the action too.

In any case, this is probably all hypothetical. My contacts in ORNL tell me that the GNEP research program is basically dead in the water anyway, as they didn't get the funding they requested to go forward. Right now, what we have are various Gen III+ LWRs, and other than the BN-800 and a few South African PBMRs, I doubt we'll see much else before 2020. But the picture after 2020 depends enormously on choices that will be made soon. Let's hope that the new administration chooses wisely.

DV8 2XL said...

The fight is not for the current crop of reactors, they will be solid fuel no question. However we do have to look to the future and that is why work on MSRs has to be restarted in the near short term.

I would like to see more work done as well on Aqueous homogeneous reactors (AHR)which have very high neutron economies and the lowest specific fuel requirements of any design. This type of reactor is far simpler than than any of the solid fuel designs.

New materials, not available in the '50s when these reactors were in vogue, might eliminate the corrosion issues that was the designs downfall.

Brian said...

I'm not sure that I'm comfortable with "betting the farm" on a concept that, quite frankly, doesn't even exist as a design.

Personally, I predict that GNEP will devolve back into the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, which existed before GNEP. This is probably for the best, since it is probably the form in which the program should have always remained -- under the radar and without all of the hype. The high profile of GNEP has drawn too much criticism, both from the usual anti-nuclear suspects and from nuclear enthusiasts (surprisingly enough). It is interesting for me to observe that industry (i.e., the reactor vendors) were initially skeptical about GNEP when it was first announced, but they later came on board. Now that they are interested, the program will likely be abandoned. *sigh* This is so DOE.

Although I admit that the program is perhaps a little too ambitious (but I think that it has been overblown and misrepresented in much of the media and blog-space), the real reason that GNEP has fared so poorly recently is because the US Congress is more interested in funding the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) program, which is centered around a high-temperature, gas-cooled reactor design (which might be pebble bed and might not). The politicians apparently want a new reactor that can be built in the near future, not an entire program.

I don't have any problems with MSR enthusiasts explaining the details and advantages of their favorite design; however, I have noticed that they tend to be overly critical of other concepts, while skipping over the shortcomings of their own. (I have the same problem with IFR enthusiasts, by the way.) Whether this is due to genuine ignorance or simply too much zeal, I don't know, but it does tend to give a distorted picture of the technology.

The MSR might be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but it's nearly impossible to tell at this point because the technology is so immature today. There is a long road between a promising concept and an economical commercial design, and there are many unexpected issues that pop up during the process, and even after the plants have been built. While I share your enthusiasm with this design, my advice is simply one of caution: Don't attack other concepts simply because they are not your favorite. You're doing nobody a favor there, because if the MSR is developed for real and if it encounters difficulties on a similar scale to the criticisms that you have launched against other designs, then you might be hoisted with your own petard.

Sovietologist said...

I'd be more tolerant of the GNEP proposal if it hadn't chosen a set of technologies that is known to be seriously flawed and which is considerably less promising than potential alternatives- HTGRs included. I do think that there's room for many different reactor designs, but there are some that are better off avoided- the Soviet RBMK, for instance. It's not that I think that MSRs are the only choice (although I do think they're the best choice), it's that sodium-cooled burners and UREX+ is a particularly poor choice among the many possible ones. I'm enthusiastic about a lot of reactor designs- PBMRs, small lead-cooled fast reactors, the current GEN III+ reactors, all in appropriate applications. It's not that I'm down on all non-MSR designs- I'm just unenthusiastic about sodium-cooled burner reactors, and I really want to see liquid-fuel reactor research restarted. And the latter isn't going to happen so long as Congress, scientists outside of the nuclear field, and the general public are unfamiliar with the MSR and its considerable potential.

David Walters said...

I think advancing the LFTR design...it has been proven albeit not engineered up in a commercial scale plant, helps in the whole of the nuclear debate.

I spend much of my blogging time on this, defending the LWR. No Gen-IV reactor of any type is going to advance without the success of the current Gen III and III+ proposals. I'm all for spending MOST of my energy on this.

But...I'm also for being up front about the problems associated with solid fueled plants. Not to emphisize this in the negative but not to gloss over things like the huge cost in reprocessing (which I'm for but one has to be honest about the costs). Nevertheless: talking or "hyping" the MSR/LFTR is way to convince people that nuclear really is a good thing, that's it's not all about a plutonium economy but something actually much simpler.

David Walters